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Mandela faces delicate problem of
a barbaric tradition without alienating people from his own tribe
Ancient practice of tribal
divides South Africa
Alec Russell in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape
Daily Telegraph (London), p. 17, January 23, 1997
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South Africa's tribal chiefs have launched an impassioned defence of the controversial and sometimes fatal rite of tribal circumcision in a debate which highlights the complexities of President Mandela's desire to fuse Africa with the West.
The mutilations and deaths that
followed the inevitable slips of the hand
were traditionally dismissed as a sign that the victim had not been destined to reach manhood.
For centuries young men of Mr. Mandela's Xhosa tribe have headed off into the bush for an agonising initiation into manhood at the hands of an ingcibi (traditional surgeon) wielding a spear or a knife.
The mutilations and deaths that followed the inevitable slips of the hand were traditionally dismissed as a sign that the victim had not been destined to reach manhood.
But in post-apartheid South Africa such conclusions are not so readily acceptable. Imbued with ultra-liberalising instincts, the African National Congress chants as a mantra its ideal of bringing "a better life to all."
The question is how to regulate practices such as tribal circumcision without alienating the majority of Xhosas, including most city-dwellers, for whom it is an incontrovertible rite of passage.
After recent experiences, Delicious Ngomane, a senior nurse in Lusikisiki, in the Eastern Cape, would almost certainly conclude that it is an impossible task.
It was when the sixteenth teenager arrived in her ward late last year with gangrenous wounds from a botched circumcision that she decided enough was enough.
As a Xhosa, she knew women were barred from entering the initiates' camps. They are the preserve of the young men who for up to a month after being circumcised daub their faces white, wear blankets, and live off a spartan diet.
They had staggered from the hills saying that scores more were in agony from infected wounds after a surgeon used the same rusty spear on 80 initiates. "...The stench of rotting flesh was unbearable and the pain those kids were experiencing was unbelievable."
But as a nurse, Mrs. Ngomane could not ignore the reports from her 16 patients. They had staggered from the hills saying that scores more were in agony from infected wounds after a surgeon used the same rusty spear on 80 initiates. Helped by the local police chief, Capt. Gugulethu Matha, Mrs. Ngomane dragged more than 50 initiates into her car.
"It was appalling," she said. "The bandages were filthy. The stench of rotting flesh was unbearable and the pain those kids were experiencing was unbelievable."
To an outsider her actions seem clear-cut. In this one incident, three initiates died, 16 lost their manhood and 26 had to have intimate plastic surgery.
Mrs. Ngomane undoubtedly saved many lives. But far from being feted, her mission has ignited a bitter debate over the future of South Africa's society.
The horrified authorities insist that they have to implement standards for the ingcibis, compulsory sterilisation of their instruments, and health inspections for the initiates.
"Sometimes the surgeons put on masks and operate in the dark so they can't even see the boys, and chop in any direction," said Capt. Matha. "We have decided to expose these practices so that the same thing doesn't go on happening."
An ingcibi has been arrested and charged with murder. But to the thousands of chiefs who still dominate the rural areas the idea that traditional customs should be adapted to modern Western ways is anathema.
A meeting of the Eastern Cape's traditional leaders last week insisted that they alone should supervise reforms and that government officials could play a role only if they had undergone the ritual.
Mr. Mandela is no stranger to the debate, or to the ritual. He describes in his autobiography how he felt "as if fire was shooting through my veins," and "the pain was so intense that I buried my chin in my chest."
Now, however, he has to tread very carefully. Just as many lapsed Christians in the West find themselves drawn to church on Christmas Day, many urbanised young Xhosas back circumcision when their turn comes. Just a few days after the last initiates were taken to hospital, a group of schoolboys who are due to be "cut" next year dismissed the danger and derided their wounded superiors as cowards.
"I am determined to go through with it, no matter what happened this year," said Sibusiso Soji, 16. "Our fathers will almost certainly try to stop us, but we will go ahead with it."
"Every young African should do this. Previously men won glory by fighting against the colonists. Now the only way to hold your head high is to be circumcised." He might, however, change his mind if he paid a visit to Nolundi Ndulelisa, whose only son, 19-year-old Zuko, died of his wounds. "He never even told me he was going to do it," she said with tears in her eyes. "He just disappeared."
"Our family are Xhosas. We always used to do this. But now I wouldn't advise anyone to let their sons go to the hills."
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